What, even the rich ride them?” she asks. “Yes, even rich people ride them.” My aunt from Istanbul can’t believe it. “What do their customers think when they see their investment banker riding a bike?” I say: “They probably think – look at that big head, showing off his wealth. Riding an expensive bike while my shares are hitting rock bottom!” She says: “I would never trust a cyclist with my money.”
Most non-Europeans who come to Germany find it hard to imagine that people voluntarily use their own muscle power to get around. But it really is true! MPs ride their bikes to the Bundestag. Surgeons cycle to the next operation. We even have a government authority that checks the safety of construction sites to make sure that cyclists don’t accidentally crash into a hoarding or fall into a building pit. Telephoning is prohibited while riding a bicycle, as is cycling under the influence of alcohol. You’re not allowed to ride on the pavement and, of course, the police will give you a hefty fine if your bicycle lamp isn’t on at night or if you don’t have any reflectors in your spokes. Bicycle lanes are an established part of public infrastructure planning in municipal budgets – at least in towns that have any money. They would often rather not have a swimming pool than do without cycle tracks.
My aunt is still listening and comments dryly: “And this is the country whose people travel all over the world? I’m a woman, so how am I supposed to use a bike in high heels?” I explain: “We’re in Germany. You don’t wear high heels here; you put on a helmet and a heavy wind-and-rain jacket. And before you ask: no, women with their own income and bank account don’t mind. When they go to the hairdresser’s they ask for a practical, aerodynamic hairstyle that will survive the next bike ride.”
Germany, land of the car, is really the land of the bicycle. There are 45 million cars and 70 million bicycles on the roads here. Of course, these statistics don’t mean much, because you have to be 17 to drive a car, whereas, these days, children are put on a running bike as soon as they learn to walk. The running bike, or draisine, is a German invention, by the way. Karl Drais lived at the same time as Goethe – from 1785 to 1851 to be precise – and he invented the idea of running between two wheels. The “running machine” later became the pedal-powered bicycle. But even the Germans themselves probably don’t know these details. Otherwise we wouldn’t hear pedestrians complaining so much about the pavements being full of “these new-fangled running bikes” in areas where there are lots of children. “No!” you feel like shouting, “they’re not new-fangled at all!” On the contrary, running wheels are old fashioned and quintessentially German! The bicycle is so German, it’s even more German than the car.
In such cases my aunt from Istanbul says: “Typically German, these Germans!” ▪
MELY KIYAK lives in Berlin. Her essays, analyses and feature articles are published in the F.A.Z., Die Zeit and taz, among others. She was awarded the Theodor Wolff Prize in 2011.